Aunt Jemima Was a Jazz Singer

Quaker Oats Company has had six models of Aunt Jemima for their pancake mix. In the 1940’s it was Edith Wilson.

Born Edith Goodall to a middle class family in Louisville, Kentucky, Edith first performed as part of a blues trio with Lena and Danny Wilson. She recorded 17 songs in 1921 and 1922 with Columbia with Johnny Dunn’s Jazz Hounds. Edith remained a nightclub and theatre singer working for years in New York City.

Edith became a major star in the New York black entertainment world. She was part of the famous “Lew Leslie’s Plantation Review” at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. Edith also traveled to England where she established herself as an international star. Though she lacked the emotional depth that artists such as Bessie Smith and Ida Cox brought to the classic blues form, Wilson helped introduce the blues to white audiences, both in the U.S. and in Europe

Edith sang with The Hot Chocolates revue performing alongside Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. Edith Wilson would appear with all the greatest names in black show business of the day, including Bill Robinson, Duke Ellington, Alberta Hunter, Cab Calloway, Noble Sissle, and many others.

Credit: Smithsonian Institution

Edith did extensive work as an actress appearing on radio in Amos and Andy playing the part of Kingfish’s mother-in-law and in the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Becall class film “To Have and Have Not”.

After WWII she became the face of Aunt Jemima for the Quaker Oats Company. Some criticized Edith Wilson for playing a black stereotype, but she refused to be intimidated and was proud of what she considered the aura of dignity she brought to the character.

Edith Wilson as Aunt Jemima at personal appearance for the Seattle Kiwanis Club, 1956

Edith Wilson retired from show business in 1963 to work as an executive secretary with Negro Actors Guild and to involve herself with other charitable, religious, and literary activities. She returned from retirement in 1973, her last appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980.

 

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Electrifying Match-Ups

I just finished reading The Last Day of Night by Graham Moore and thought it would be fun to look at photographs of Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, who, more than a century ago, engaged in a nasty battle over alternating and direct current, known as the “War of Currents.”

Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla Credit: Library of Congress

Edison developed the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. Supported by his own direct current electrical system, the rush to build hydroelectric plants to generate DC power in cities across the United States practically guaranteed Edison a fortune in patent royalties.

But there were limitations with DC power so Edison brought Nikola Tesla on to design a more practical form of power transmission. Tesla was a 28 years old mathematician and engineer from Serbia. Tesla told Edison the future was in AC (alternating current). When Edison dismissed his idea Tesla left Edison in 1885 and set out to raise money for his own company.

Enter industrialist George Westinghouse at Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company Westinghouse who made his fortune on an air braking system, which revolutionized rail safety. Westinghouse was a believer in AC power. He bought some of Tesla’s patents and set about commercializing the system to make electric lighting more than an urban luxury service. While Tesla’s ideas and ambitions might be brushed aside, Westinghouse had both ambition and capital, and Edison immediately recognized the threat to his business.

George Westinghouse

Edison and Westinghouse knew there was room for but one American electricity system, and Edison set out to ruin Westinghouse and Tesla in a great political, legal and marketing game. Their battle played out on the front pages of newspapers and in the Supreme Court. Edison’s attempt to smear Westinghouse with the dangers of AC has precisely the opposite effect.

Despite all of Edison’s efforts, and despite his attempts to persuade General Electric otherwise, the superiority of the AC current was too much for Edison and his DC system to overcome.  For his part, Edison later admitted that he regretted not taking Tesla’s advice.

In 1893, Westinghouse was awarded the contract to light the Chicago’s World Fair bringing all the positive publicity he would need to make alternating current the industry standard.

Postcard World’s Columbian Exposition Chicago 1893
Spectators viewing the Columbian Exposition Fair
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago lit by Westinghouse
Electrical Building at the fair exhibiting both Westinghouse Electric as well as Edison’s General Electric Company

Seeking to make long distance electric power transmission a reality, George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla combined their skills and their belief in the new AC technology to build the first hydro-electric power plant in 1895 in Niagara Falls. This achievement was regarded as the unofficial end to the War of the Currents, and AC became dominant in the electric power industry.

Interior of Edward Dean Adams power station at Niagara with ten 5,000-horsepower Tesla/Westinghouse AC generators. Photo credit: The Everett Collection

In 1899 Tesla opened the Experimental Station in Colorado Springs to study the use of high-voltage, high frequency electricity in wireless power transmission. One of Tesla’s goals was to produce artificial lightning.

Tesla shown here with the Tesla spiral coil high voltage transformer, 1896.
Famous photograph of Serbian-American inventor Nicola Tesla in his laboratory in Colorado Springs around 1899. Tesla is supposedly sitting reading next to his giant high voltage generator while the machine produced huge bolts of electricity. The photo was a promotional stunt by photographer Dickenson V. Alley – a double exposure. First the machine’s huge sparks were photographed in the darkened room, then the photographic plate was exposed again with the machine off and Tesla sitting in the chair. In his Colorado Springs Notes Tesla admitted that the photo is false.

Vaudeville to American Suffragette

 

Trixie Friganza was born on November 29, 1870 and given the name Delia O’Callaghan.

She began working at a young age (12 or 13 years old) in order to help support her family, securing a cash girl position at Pogue’s store, and earning $3.00 a week. When she was sixteen she was promoted to the handkerchief counter at Pogue’s store and her salary went up to around $4.50–$5.00 a week. It was her boyfriend at the time, who encouraged her not to waste her talents as a singer and actress and to venture onto the stage where she could double or triple her current salary. She took her mother’s maiden name Friganza and the nickname Trixie stuck.

Her mother was inconsolable and devastated at her daughter’s decision to take to the stage. She notified Cleveland authorities who brought Trixie before a Cleveland judge to justify her decision to work in theater. She presented such a compelling and rational case for this career move (she had to prove to the judge that she was neither “silly” nor “stage-struck”, that this was a business move) that the judge granted her clemency and telegraphed her mother saying that Trixie was doing the right thing. She remained on stage in some form or another for the next fifty years.

Trixie Friganza was civic minded and socially attuned. She was not progressive by modern standards, but for a woman at the turn of the twentieth century to align herself with women’s suffrage and to promote a positive female body image was pretty radical. On October 28, 1908, Trixie attended a women’s suffrage rally at New York City Hall where she delivered a speech for women’s rights.

Trixie at Suffragette movement in New York, 1908

She transitioned to film in the early 1920s mostly playing small characters that were quirky and comedic and retired from the stage in 1940 due to health concerns. She spent her last years teaching drama to young women in a convent school and when she died she left everything to the convent. She became a highly sought after comic actress after the success of The Chaperons.

Trixie Friganza in The Chaperons

Trixie toured with many theatre companies in the coming years working her way from roles in the chorus to more prominently featured roles with speaking parts. Part of her success can be attributed to her constant willingness to step in and take over roles when others fell ill or could not appear. These instances provided her an opportunity to demonstrate her ability and ingenuity. She impressed agents, audiences and other actors alike with her stellar singing voice and ability to command audiences with her humorous interpretation of characters.

Trixie Friganza with Buster Keaton in Free and Easy – Easy Go, 1930 Credit: AF archive/Alamy

You can watch a funny video of Trixie here:   https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9H-7fKb9uQY

 

Waves of Defiance in Boston

Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017

On Saturday, January 21, 2017 about 175,000 people came to Boston to protest against newly elected President Trump. It was an outpouring of energy and patriotism expressing the crowd’s concerns about protecting all rights for women, immigrants, the LGB community and even democracy itself.

Photographer Frank Siteman was there documenting this “sea of love” capturing the variety of signs and faces. I’ve included just a few of his images here. You can see more by going to this link:

http://www.franksiteman.com/2017bostonmarch

Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017

siteman-truth-sign-_mg_3916

Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women's March (c) Frank Siteman 2017
Boston Women’s March (c) Frank Siteman 2017

Alexander the Great Quest for Immortality

Alexander the Great fighting Darius III - mosaic from Pompeii Credit: Museo Archeologico Nazionale
Alexander the Great fighting Darius III – mosaic from Pompeii Credit: Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) is known as the conqueror of much of the ancient world. By the time of his early death at the age of 32, he had won territories from Egypt to India and made a lasting name for himself as a brilliant military commander and strategist. Accounts of his life and exploits are known from an early period, in various cultures and in a number of different languages.

Through the years, so many stories have been told and retold about Alexander the Great that he has become more like a character from Greek mythology than a real human being.

Medieval accounts of Alexander’s adventures and exploits included illustrations with fearsome beasts as seen in several European examples shown below.

Miniature of Alexander the Great in battle with dragons, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 49v. The British Library
Miniature of Alexander the Great in battle with dragons, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 49v. The British Library

 

Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 76v. The British Library
Detail of a miniature of Alexander the Great, in a cage, being carried aloft by griffins, Royal 20 B. xx, f. 76v.
The British Library

As a great general, Alexander was a fitting role model for young princes and kings, particularly during the troubled period of the Hundred Years War, when a ruler’s military prowess was so important.  The illustration above is from a French manuscript called The True History of the Good King Alexander. Whoever its original owner might have been, by the mid-sixteenth century it had indeed found a royal home: the added inscription ‘HR’ (Henricus Rex) at the beginning of the book indicates that the volume eventually found its way into the library of Henry VIII.

Another miniature of Alexander exploring the ocean in a glass barrel accompanied by a cat and a cock. His unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him to the ship. Also from The True History of the Good King Alexander c. 1420
Another miniature from The True History of the Good King Alexander ca. 1420 shows Alexander  exploring the ocean in a glass barrel accompanied by a cat and a cock. His unfaithful wife tries to murder him by cutting the cord connecting him to the ship. It’s the cat that saves the day.

 

Imagery from Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen Photo credit: Lebrecht
Imagery from Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen Photo credit: Lebrecht

In a German epic poem entitled Song of Alexander by Lamprecht von Pfaffen there is another fabulous account of the life of Alexander the Great. This 12th century illustration shows Alexander doing battle with six-handed human-like creatures and pigs with terrible fangs.  The monsters look a lot like the beasts in Maurice Sendak’s children’s book Where the Wild Things Are as seen below:

Drawing from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (c) Harper & Row Publishers
Drawing from Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (c) Harper & Row Publishers

 

Another illustration from Song of Alexander showing Alexander doing battle with dragons and other fantastical beasts. Credit: Lebrecht
Another illustration from Song of Alexander showing Alexander doing battle with dragons and other fantastical beasts. Credit: Lebrecht

Alexander the Great is quoted as saying, “I would rather live a short life of glory than a long one of obscurity.” That’s exactly what he got. 2,300 years later we remember him as a legendary, mythic figure. He fulfilled his quest for immortality.

 

 

 

A Medieval Feminist

Christine de Pizan (1364-1430), often called the first professional female author, wrote to support herself and her family. She is one of the few women who had prominence as a secular writer during a time when women were neither educated nor independent.

Christine de Pisan Teaching Her Son – Unknown illuminated manuscript from British Library, London
Christine de Pisan Teaching Her Son – Unknown illuminated manuscript from British Library, London

Christine was born in Venice in 1364. When she was five, her family moved to France so that her father, a physician and astrologer, could work as a councilor to King Charles V.

In Paris Christine’s mother wanted her to learn domestic skills, but her father believed that it would benefit her to learn how to read and write. In the milieu of a court that had an immense library, she learned Italian, French, and some Latin.

When she was 15 years old, she married Étienne du Castel, a nobleman and courtier who became the king’s secretary. But that same year Charles V died and her father lost his position, and with it the high income. Three years later her husband died, leaving her with the burden of three small children. Her widowed mother, also dependent on her, cared for her children while Christine threw herself into literature, philosophy, and anything she could learn.

Instead of remarrying, she decided to enlarge upon her studies. Fortunately she was allowed access to the libraries of the courts. In 1394 she began to write and sell her poems and receive commissions by patrons of the court.

As Christine continued to write poetry and prose, a feminist voice emerged. In The Book of the City of Ladies she created a utopian world where women had power and control and proved that many of the negative myths regarding the female sex were false.

Illuminated page from The Book of the City of Women. Paris about 1405. Photo credit: Manuscript Department/Library of Congress
Illuminated page from The Book of the City of Women. Paris about 1405. Photo credit: Manuscript Department/Library of Congress

In this illustration from The Book of the City of Women, aided by Reason, Uprightness, and Justice, she lays the foundation of a City exclusively for women who have served the cause of women (female warriors, politicians, good wives, lovers, and inventors, among others). The imagined City will be crowned by the glory of the Virgin and sainted women.

Its sequel, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, was different, written specifically for upper-class women and members of the court, to give them advice on managing their homes during their husbands’ absences. In this book she cautioned against dishonest governors and protecting one’s rights as a landowner so that unscrupulous agents would not take advantage of a woman’s status.

Christine was knowledgeable in farming and spoke to the role of women as housekeepers in a time when their domain included fields, crops, laborers, and maids.

“The good housekeeper must keep her eyes wide open.” Christine was well acquainted with the chores involved in livestock maintenance, as well as agriculture. Every detail of the work involved in a responsible woman’s life was spelled out. She stressed that the mistress of a domestic enterprise should constantly be watchful.

Illustrations from The Treasure of the City of Ladies Credit: Special Collections, Boston Public Library
Illustrations from The Treasure of the City of Ladies Credit: Special Collections, Boston Public Library

The left side of this illustration shows Christine reclining on a canopied bed trying to rest after finishing The Book of the City of Ladies. The three Virtues awakening Christine giving her such a mighty tug that she pulls her into an upright position, commanding: Have you already put away the tool of your intelligence and consigned it to silence? Take your pen and write.

 The right side of this miniature portrays all of the women addressed in the text. The middle class women are seated on a bench in the foreground, with their backs to the viewer.  Three of these women wear hoods with long tails hanging down their backs.  These hoods indicate their lower status. There are several women on the bench with white horned headdresses identical to the one our author wears, spelling out their slightly higher status as servants of the court, or members of the affluent middle class.

Christine de Pizan lecturing men (I) and in her study) Both illustrations accompany the Cent Ballades, in the Queen’s Manuscript of 1411-12, now in the British Library.
Christine de Pizan lecturing men (I) and in her study) Both illustrations accompany the Cent Ballades, in the Queen’s Manuscript of 1411-12, now in the British Library.

The Book of the Queen contains the largest extant collection of Christine’s writing, and was written and decorated under her supervision, commissioned for Isabeau of Bavaria, the queen consort to Charles VI of France.

Christine’s life was dramatically altered by the Hundred Years War clash between France and England. Sometime after France lost the Battle of Agincourt she entered a convent in Poissy, France. In 1429 she penned a work to praise Joan of Arc. This proved to be her final contribution to literature. Christine died around 1430.

 

 

 

 

Contemporary Western Art

On a recent visit to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming I found myself drawn to their contemporary art selection. Here are four of my favorites:

Tonto’s Dream, 2013 by David Bradley. Credit: Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Tonto’s Dream, 2013 by David Bradley. Credit: Whitney Western Art Museum/Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Artist David Bradley is a Minnesota Chippewa Indian whose work often comments on the commercialization of Native cultures in a humorous way. Here, he portrays Tonto, the Indian sidekick of the Lone Ranger, a popular TV character from the 1950s. Western clichés and Indian stereotypes fill the canvas: Buffalo Gals, ghost riders, and Tonto himself. Traditional Native American culture survives in a few scattered beads, pottery shards, and petroglyphs, while the widespread symbol of today’s American Indian the casino, is prominently represented by signs and a deck of cards.

The painting is based on a famous 1897 work by the influential French artist Henri Rousseau called “The Sleeping Gypsy” (shown below).  For Bradley, the lion is transformed into this mountain lion. In the foreground, that sleeping gypsy is now a sleeping Tonto. If you look on the left-hand side, you’ll see the Lone Ranger peeking out from a rock.

The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897 by Henri Rousseau. Credit: Museum of Modern Art
The Sleeping Gypsy, 1897 by Henri Rousseau. Credit: Museum of Modern Art

By referencing iconic works of European art like “The Sleeping Gypsy,” Bradley asserts his right to tap into artistic traditions beyond his roots and adopts it for his own.

The Menagerie, 2007-2011 by Michael Scott Credit: Whitney Western Art Museum/ Buffalo Bill Center of the West
The Menagerie, 2007-2011 by Michael Scott Credit: Whitney Western Art Museum/Buffalo Bill Center of the West

Michael Scott is a contemporary artist who currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Scott finds inspiration for his subjects and style in history, art history, and the western landscape and people near his home. In “The Menagerie” Scott imagines Buffalo Bill as the caretaker for an exotic bird menagerie. Symbolism for each bird references the personality of Buffalo Bill, who stands as the “ring leader” of the birds in the painting. Note the hummingbird at Buffalo Bill’s left ear, which was a symbol used by 17th century European artists to signify the fleeting nature of life. The peacock is associated with vanity and therefore reflects one quality of Buffalo Bill. The composition and subject reference a major American 18th century painting by Charles Wilson Peale that depicted a self-portrait of the artist in his museum (shown below).

The Artist in His Museum 1822 by Charles Wilson Peale Credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
The Artist in His Museum 1822 by Charles Wilson Peale
Credit: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
A Contemporary Sioux Indian, 1978 by James Bama Credit: Whitney Western Art Museum/Buffalo Bill Center of the West
A Contemporary Sioux Indian, 1978 by James Bama Credit: Whitney Western Art Museum/Buffalo Bill Center of the West

James Bama left a successful illustration career and his New York home for the solitude of the Absaroka Mountains of Wyoming and life as a Realist painter. Often overlooked in the scope of American art, Bama’s paintings hold their own when compared to other outstanding American Realists.

Bama has portrayed a contemporary Indian who maintains a relationship with the past but has to find his place in the white man’s world. The message on the wall behind the subject echoes the artist’s theme of the nonacceptance of Indians in mainstream American society.

The Wild Rose by Buckeye Blake Credit: Buffalo Bill Center of the West
The Wild Rose by Buckeye Blake Credit: Buffalo Bill Center for Western History

Buckeye Blake’s painting, The Wild Rose, ia based on world-champion bronc rider Fannie Sperry Steele and her trick horse Sultan. Steele is a rodeo legend from Montana who was the first woman inducted into the Rodeo Hall of Fame. “I love the West as well as its history,” Blake says. “It’s a delicate balance in a hard land, an epic nuance in an incredible orchestration of light, shadow, color, and space—to begin to capture such a symphony is both sacred and humbling.”

Fannie at the Winnipeg Stampede, 1913
Fannie at the Winnipeg Stampede, 1913